Gephardt News

“The Little Things” artist profile: Mac Barnes ’26

“The Little Things” Art Exhibition explores the intersection of civics and art, showcasing the work of more than two dozen student artists—including “T.S. 03/02/2021,” a painting by Mac Barnes ’26.

As part of the Gephardt Institute’s inaugural art exhibition, “The Little Things,” we sat down to talk with Mac Barnes ‘26. Barnes’ piece, “T.S. 03/02/2021,” is on display—along with the work of more than 23 other talented artists—until May 1. The WashU community and the public are invited to Stix House to view the art exhibition between Monday and Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.  

Gephardt Institute: What got you into art and started your career as an artist?  

Barnes: My grandmother crocheted blankets and donated them to veterans in the hospital, or people who in some way who needed that kind of support. So that was with our church, from eight or nine I was Mr. Little Helper helping her. And then I sort of became a part of that community.  I did a few blankets for them as well. Fort Bragg, there’s a picture of me holding the blanket I made. But then it continued from there. I love my grandmother, and she’d be like, “Oh, you should try this technique, or this one. Just use it, but you’ll figure it out.” And then so I did. Then the YouTube algorithm showed me all these things. And very quickly, I wanted to do all the crochet. 

I went to a STEM middle school, really focused on that, and I knew about the boarding school I went to in high school, the North Carolina School of Science and Math. To get in, you really have to focus on it. So, I did. I kind of put art to the side, and I focused on STEM. But it wasn’t until I actually got there that I wanted to get back into art, and I found Bisa Butler’s work, which is a beautiful collection about American identify, and especially Black American identity, through quilting. And I thought, “How cool would it be to revive my textile quilting and fond memories of childhood for a final project?” 

From there, I started making more and more computer-based methods of creating these quilts, creating portraits, I did a whole series on them. That ended up getting me into the Scholastic Art & Writing Competition in school. They really trajected me towards not just having the STEM and the art be separate; but showed me that they’re better together. And that’s why I came to WashU and the Beyond Boundaries program.  

Gephardt Institute: The name of your piece in The Little Things Art Exhibition is “T.S. 03/02/21.” Who is T.S.? What was behind that name and the title of this piece?  

Barnes: This piece specifically is part of a larger collection of six called “A Walk in Their Shoes” that was in response to wanting to continue this sort of like explored fabrics, quilts and portraits. But it was also in response to…it was during COVID when I got the idea for it. I was sitting at home, I was watching the BLM movement, Jan. 6, I was on TikTok…we were just missing people. We were seeing what they stood for, we were having conversations about that, but I feel we just didn’t get to see people for who they are, without all the names and the words and the actions. So, I was like, “What can I do about that? I’m frustrated.” What if I was able to present someone in a light that they hadn’t seen that person in before. To show who they are and where they’ve been. So we can have a conversation about empathy, and have a conversation about these really challenging topics, like race in America, homophobia and sexuality, or any of these difficult topics, sexual assault, domestic violence. How can we have more attention on this if we’re not having conversations about it? Letting people see what’s there.   

And so that’s how this came about. T.S. was someone who was an instructor of mine in high school. They were just such a bright, exciting presence to be around, and they challenged this same sort of idea of having empathy for other people. And having an identify that on paper made me feel conflicted, like being a queer Christian. And I just really appreciated their verbiage and the approach to that intersection of identity. And I wanted to know more. And I thought this would be a really great starting point for telling these nuanced narratives that exist, that challenge our ideas, that really push our conversations a little further. What better way to show the nuance of growing up in this community, having a struggle with it, really making that identity your own, but still recognizing the scars of that trauma, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, and in the process becoming stronger for it? So that’s what I based this storytelling narrative on, was a phoenix. It’s also an image we all sort of recognize. But to do so, I set the quilt on fire, I did bright colors. I just fell in love with that concept, and I wanted to share that.  

Gephardt Institute: In a practical sense, was there any part of creating this piece that was difficult or frustrating?  

Barnes: When you’re trying to tell someone’s story, where they’ve been, and where they’re going, who they are, that’s hard to do. And so, I really struggled—it is my version of their story, but I try to make as original as I can to them and make it unique. And we go back and forth. “Does this represent you?” It’s scary to present a work to someone, or to anyone, and say, “This isn’t about me, it’s about someone else.” But there is me in it. That’s scary.  

Also, it’s the physical creation. I made the face too small; I made it like a third scale on accident and it was supposed to be much bigger. I was freaking out because I had this deadline, and I was freaking out because I didn’t have time to remake this whole phase. So, my teacher just said, “Work with it.” So, I did, and it allowed me to utilize that text in a better way. And the mistakes along the way, you burn something and then the integrity is not there. So, I’d be sewing and pieces were pulling up; but that’s part of the process. Which is interesting to think about in the context of the story.   

Gephardt Institute: What do you hope visitors or observers of your work leave with? What questions do you want them to leave with after they look at your piece? 

Barnes: Quilts tell stories in a really captivating, nuanced, emotional, with fiber. I just want to expose that to people. There’s an entire world out there of people, of artists, who do that, in really creative ways. From a media perspective, I want those people to walk away thinking, “Wow, I want to see textiles.” I want people to see that you can have identities that don’t go with the norm, and that’s OK. Like queer Christian, or queer and Black, these sorts of identities…they’re OK. That doesn’t mean that you’re not going to experience pushback. I want them to see T.S. as a role model, someone who has these identities and experiences very real issues, and that they’re better for it. I want them to see this sort of, like, long game, be inspired and be able to think on a macro level, to zoom out.  

Gephardt Institute: Last question. What does art in civic engagement mean, or what does it look like to you?  

Barnes: When you really get down into it, civic engagement is uncomfortable. Like it was uncomfortable when I had to sit there and watch people interact with the piece. It was uncomfortable when I had to sit with the thought of, how do I tell the beautiful story of this person I admire, in a way that isn’t a mischaracterization or an oversimplification? Those moments of uncomfortableness, I think is really what defines art as civic engagement. It’s not just something we look at; because otherwise it wouldn’t be civic engagement. That, to me, is a learning process as well. But it’s sitting with that uncomfortable nature and learning to thrive in it. And that’s how we become more engaged.